Hunting for history leads daughter to Hohenfels
October 18, 2011
By Mark Iacampo
- "I wonder what my father would have thought about me trying to come back and retrace his steps."
HOHENFELS, Germany -- When Norman Young died in 1965, his 12-year-old daughter realized there were many things about her father and his life that she didn't know. 46 years later, Tricia Richardson is still filling in the blanks, and her search recently brought her to Hohenfels.
"I've been a bit like a bull dog with a bone," said Richardson of her dogged determination to track down clues to her father's life. "You take these things for granted when you're young, but as you get older and you realize how easily things slip away, you become more interested."
A subscription to Ancestry.com sparked an intense interest in her father's heretofore unfamiliar military career. Richardson learned that Young enlisted at the age of 16 with Great Britain's East Yorkshire Regiment and even earned the Military Medal for bravery during the battle of Arras in France. In June, 1942 at Mersa Matruh, Egypt , Young took a bullet that shattered his thigh bone, and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner, first in Italy, and finally in Hohenfels.
Stalag 383, in what is now the Hohenfels training area, served as a non-working camp for approximately 5,000 non-commissioned officers. The book "Barbed Wire" by M.M. McKibbin, provides a vivid account of life in the camp and reads a bit like an episode of the '60s sitcom "Hogan's Heroes", complete with hidden tunnels, secret radios, homemade stills, gambling dens, and dance halls.
"He never talked about it," said Richardson. "When I was small, he always had trouble with his leg, and he'd say, "Oh, I was shot in the leg." But as a child, you think that's nothing, people on the TV get shot all the time. I assume he didn't talk about because it was something he wanted to forget."
"I know my father didn't want to talk about the war," added Richardson's husband, Martin. "It's like, the war ended, and you drew a line, and you didn't really want to relive any of it because it wasn't all that good."
Young had kept a diary, though, during his final year as a POW, and Richardson's brother Peter found it packed away in the attic. Every month, he would scan a few pages and email them off to Richardson, who resides in Maryland. Richardson transcribed the handwritten pages, adding notes and filling in details.
"If I don't do this and document it for my son and his children, then it's going to get lost in time, because the further you go away from it, the more that gets lost," Richardson said. "I actually know of someone whose father was a POW here with my father, and when he died, his wife threw all these mementoes away, thinking it wouldn't interest anybody. And that's a shame."
While researching online, Richardson stumbled upon a site that had a message posted in 2002 from a man searching for her father. Richardson eventually made contact and found herself speaking to New Zealander Graham McBride, whose father Ian was the "Mac" mentioned frequently in Young's diary.
"It's just amazing to me," said Richardson. "All these years later, that the children of these two bunkmates should make contact over the internet. These guys would never have believed that their children would meet. I can now send (McBride) the diary so he gleans more information about his father."
As old pictures surfaced, and she completed her transcription of the diary, Richardson realized she needed to see Hohenfels herself. While perusing the garrison Facebook page she "struck pay dirt" by connecting with Wesley D. Potter, deputy garrison commander.
"Initially we were just going to visit the town of Hohenfels, and then Wesley invited us to actually come on base for a tour," said Richardson.
Norbert Wittl, public affairs official and native of nearby Rohrbach, has escorted dozens of visitors around the training area.
"Most are a little disappointed that there's nothing left of the POW camp," Wittl said.
Richardson admitted that at first she felt exactly that, but finishing her tour in the beautiful village of Hohenfels, she decided she was pleased there is nothing left of the camp.
"Going (to the village of Hohenfels) at the end was a nice touch because it is so lovely -- you feel like things are back to normal. Life has carried on," she said.
Richardson said she feels lucky to have been able to tour the training area and visit the spot where Stalag 383 once stood. She recognizes though, that this is just a step along the path of learning about her father.
"I wonder what my father would have thought about me trying to come back and retrace his steps," she said. "Whether it was something so horrendous to him that he didn't want anything to do with it yet is so important to me to come here and to be here. It's very emotional to think that he had such a tough time here, but he was one of the lucky ones…he walked away."